In an excellent chapter, “Linking School Neuropsychological with Response to Intervention Models,” in Best Practices in School Psychology, Della Toffalo (2010) asserts that “…educationally relevant cognitive neuropsychological assessment…can and should occur at any time (any tier) in the RTI process when an intervention team has good reason to believe that standard protocol interventions may not be adequate to address the needs of an at-risk student (p.176).”
What does this mean? When IDEA was revised to include RTI as a way to establish eligibility for special education to correct the flaws of the ability discrepancy approach, it did not go far enough. That is, students who simply fail to be successful after a RTI plan should not be automatically considered to be learning disabled. First, this view of a learning disorder fails to include the universally accepted definition of a learning disability as including a processing deficit. Moreover, it just becomes another wait-to-fail model as students may proceed through tiers of intervention without the process being informed by cognitive processing information that could help in targeting students’ deficits earlier in the intervention process.
To elaborate, it is essential that the intervention team have available all tools that can diagnose students’ learning, behavioral, or emotional difficulties at any time (any tier). Della Toffalo includes a list of disorders involving learning disabilities which RTI alone may not be successful. It just makes no sense not to use all the neuropsychological tools available to identify the source of students’ learning and performance difficulties and to have this information drive the intervention process. Otherwise, the team is in danger of shooting from the hip, a practice that may inevitably lead to the failure of the prescribed interventions.
For example, academic subjects are byproducts of cognitive processing skills. Identifying and isolating those processes that are causing students’ problems can lead to more effective interventions. Does a students’ reading problem stem from a phonological or orthographic processing deficit? Are math problems due to a problem with memorizing basic math operations or the sequential steps to solve a word problem or to conceptual difficulties? This kind of specific knowledge about students’ issues is needed to craft an individually tailored plan. This kind of information can be obtained from the administration of specific subtests from a neuropsychological battery that are targeted to the areas of concern. In addition, this can all be done prior to going through four tiers when a full battery is needed. Of course, if a comprehensive evaluation is needed, it should be considered. However, RTRI can spare students and the intervention team a lot of time, effort, and pain.